Lesser Known National Parks to Visit

104 years and still going strong! On August 25th, 2020 the National Park Service celebrates 104 years as “America’s best idea.” We couldn’t agree more. And as a party favor, the NPS is opening all of their national parks and monuments free of charge! So load up your pandemic pod, grab your masks, and get out there. Here’s our list of some of our favorite, lesser-known National Parks and forests – the gems off the beaten path, the less crowded but equally as pleasing trails, the grand vistas with ne’er a selfie in sight. Give the popular spots a rest and try these national treasures on for size. 

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Just across the Colorado border from the popular Mesa Verde National Park is Bandelier National Monument – an equally intriguing example of Ancestral Pueblo culture. This park monument is 33,000 acres of canyons and mesa country with gorgeous hiking trails (some easy, come difficult) and views of ancient ruins and petroglyphs. Archaeology and history buffs are sure to love it.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Deep in the heart of Texas is another “El Capitan” that’s equally as impressive as the more popular face in Yosemite. You can find this larger-than-life Captain in Guadalupe Mountains National Park halfway between El Paso and Carlsbad New Mexico (also the home of an epic National Park). The Guadalupe Mountains were formed millions of years ago when a vast tropical sea covered the region; today, fossilized reefs stand as tall as the mountains – and El Capitan is the chief. There are more than 80 miles of trails and the best (and only) way to view these natural specimens is on foot. Bring a lot of water and binoculars – the park is also home to more than 300 bird species.

Cuyahoga Valley National Monument, Ohio

Love waterfalls and lush, verdant valleys? Cuyahoga is the place for you. In between Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga is a quieter version of Great Smokey Mountains National Park (easily the most-visited national park). The park is filled with forests, hills, creeks and the namesake Cuyahoga River, as well as historical canals that played a key role in the American settlement of the 1800’s. Another bonus: The historical Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad that winds through the park. Hike in, train out.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

Ok, the Grand Canyon is obviously mind blowing (the word “grand” is part of the name), but what Black Canyon lacks in width, it makes up for in depth. The great cliffs of Black Canyon plunge into the Gunnison River, some place more than 2,700 ft down. This results in some stellar echoes and even more stellar rock climbing opportunities. Deep in the canyons there are some radical Class V rapids if you are a skilled paddler (NOT recommended for beginners!) as well as some rewarding but complicated hikes (also recommended for a more intermediate or advanced hiker). For the beginners, there are ample scenic hikes along the South and North rims as well as world-class trout fishing in the Gunnison River.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina 

One of the newest parks in the system, Congaree National Park is like Texas’ Big Bend but without the crowds and coolers of Lone Star. Tucked along the mystical Congaree River near Columbia, South Carolina, this national park boasts 27,000 acres of old growth floodplain forests dropping with biodiversity. The park has more than 25 miles of hiking trails and offers gorgeous boardwalks for great accessibility. You can also explore via kayak or canoe (yours or rented) or camp along hiking or canoe trails (permits are required but free). Bring a harmonica, a dram of whiskey, and harmonize with the bullfrogs.

Muir Woods National Monument, California

Just across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is Muir Woods National Park – a big-time redwood experience nestled along the coastline of northern California. President Teddy Roosevelt declared the land a National Monument in 1908 to preserve the redwood forests, so lose yourself among these giants and marvel at the fantastic views along the way – look out at the wide pacific or across at the sparkling city on the bay. Make a weekend of it and explore adjacent Marin County for more hikes, beach walks, and oyster dinners.

North Cascades National Park, Washington

Glaciers around the globe are quickly melting, so Montana’s Glacier National Park is certainly worthy of your “Must Visit” list (especially since some scientist think the GNP glaciers will be gone by 2030!) In the meantime, get yourself to North Cascades National Park – 3 hours north of Seattle and home to more than 300 glaciers and impressive mountain peaks and cascading waterfalls. You can hike and camp in the park and even explore by boat via numerous lakes and rivers. Just be sure to bring some warm socks!

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

In the middle of Lake Superior (the largest freshwater lake in the world!), Isle Royale National Park is just about the dreamiest island escape we can think of. This park is a series of over 450 islands (most very small!) that make up an archipelago of 132,000 acres of crystal blue waters and dramatic, craggy cliffs. What it lacks in transportation (there are no cars on the islands) it makes up for in adventure. When you get there (by boat or sea plane), explore the many lakes and trails by foot, paddle board, or kayak (you can rent one there). If you are a scuba diver, look into some of the organized trips that you can take.  It’s well worth the trek to this remote slice of paradise.

With more than 400 national parks, forests, and monuments, there are plenty of places to check out. For more information, visit www.nationalparks.org.

The Best National Parks

Alright, full disclosure: There are a ton of National Parks that we could add. It’s hard to say that any ONE park is the BEST park. What’s not to love about Yosemite’s Half-Dome or the Grand Canyon’s… well, GRAND canyon? And the Great Smokey Mountains! One of the most mind-blowing network of trails on the planet! But try we must. So here’s our super-scientific, definitely not-subjective list of Best National Parks: 

A marmot by Hidden Lake and Reynolds Mountain in Glacier NP. (photo via Tobias Klenze)

Best For Epic Views: Glacier National Park

With more than a million acres of forests, alpine meadows, lakes, rugged peaks and glacial-carved valleys in the Northern Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park has no shortage of jaw dropping views. Bonus: cross the border to explore the Waterton Lakes National Park of Canada. It’s all part of the same range (because borders are a human thing, not a nature thing).

The campsite Jumbo Rocks really lives up to its name.

Best For Camping Under the Stars: Joshua Tree 

Big rocks, dark skies, and some really freakin’ cute “trees.” There’s no better place to catch nature’s celestial spectacular than Joshua Tree National Park, the mystical rock field at the nexus of two great deserts. Plan your trip around a meteor shower and don’t forget to pack layers (it’s the desert!).

The Pacific Northwest rainforest ranges from Northern California to British Colombia.

Best For Getting Wet: Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park actually has four different regions – the epic Pacific coastline, the western temperate rainforest, the alpine regions and the drier eastern forests. On the west side of the park is Hoh Rain Forest, where rainfall (12-14 feet annually!) and a lush canopy of coniferous and deciduous trees create perfect rainforest conditions for mosses and ferns to flourish. 

Eye spy something pointy… (photo via Burley Packwood)

Best For Tacos: Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is split into two sections that straddle Tuscon, AZ, making it an excellent park for people who love a taco pit-stop. On the East side, start at the Douglas Spring Trail and head up to Wild Horse Tank, then hit up Street Taco and Beer Co (free chips!) in downtown Tucson, then head to the West side to catch the King Canyon Trail before the sun goes down. The namesake Saguaro cacti abound.

They’re cute until they steal your lunch. (photo via National Park Service)

Best For Solitude: Channel Islands National Park

Off the coast of Central California are five remote islands where island foxes reign supreme and there’s no such thing as cell service. The only way to get to the Channel Islands is by boat, and once you’re there it’s just you and your legs. Camping is available on all five islands, with some spots a half-day’s hike in. But it’s all worth it for a true off-the-grid experience and run-ins with the locals: The Channel Island Fox, the smallest (and cutest) fox on the planet.

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley (photo via Wolfgangbeyer)

Best For Rocks: Death Valley National Park

Before joining the Toad team, our Office Manager, Sarah, was a geologist by trade, running all over the US looking at rocks. So according to our resident expert, “Death Valley National Park has some of the most insane rocks.” These sedimentary rocks make up the hottest, driest place in the USA and consist primarily of sandstone, limestone, conglomerate, hornfels, and marble. They date back to the Triassic Age and you can actually see the markings in the rocks from earthquakes that happened millions of years ago. Now that rocks! (Sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves).

Bass Harbor Head Light (photo via NPS, Kent Miller)

Best For Craft Beer: Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park is unique in that it shares Maine’s Mt. Desert Island (pronounced “dessert”) with a handful of 19th century fishing villages. Located along the Atlantic Coast, Acadia is surrounded by picturesque towns and harbors that you’ll drive through (or bike through!) as you drive the Park Loop Road. Stop in Bar Harbor to try Atlantic Brewing Company and Bar Harbor Beerworks. When you’ve gotten back to the mainland, hit up Fogtown Brewing in Ellsworth – all 3 come highly recommended from the Toads in our Freeport, ME store.

Life’s a breach in Kenai Fjords National Park.

Best For Kayaking: Kenai Fjords National Park 

Thanks to the food-rich waters in the Kenai Fjords, this national park is known for its lively residents of sea otters, humpback whales, dolphins and orcas. Get set up with a kayaking tour out of Seward, AK (we recommend a guide as the tides can be tricky) and dip your paddle into Aialik Bay or Bear Glacier Lagoon.

Wonder where the Double-O-Arch gets its name from? (photo via Flicka)

Best For Mountain Biking: Arches National Park

“The best mountain biking is in Moab, hands down. Plus, they have wild porcupines!” That review comes from Napper, our Creative Director, and with good reason: With over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, towers, and spinnakers in Arches National Park in Moab, UT has some of the best views you can see on a bike. To note: you can’t bike on hiking trails, but you can bike on paved roads (and you’ll want to – summer traffic can be brutal) and some dirt roads like Willow Flats Road and Salt Valley Road. There are also plenty of biking trails outside the park in nearby Moab.

Stalactites hang from ceilings, stalagmites rise from the ground. (photo via Daniel Mayer)

Best For Vampires: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Described by Will Rogers as “The Grand Canyon with a roof,” New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns are a subterranean sensation. There are 119 known caves, with the grandest one of all, The Big Room, clocking in as the largest single chamber in North America! Wander the caves at your leisure but make sure you’re out before sunset to catch the great Bat Flight at the main entrance to the caverns. At sunset, thousands of Brazilian free tailed bats take to the skies in search of dinner. Don’t worry, you’re not on the menu… yet…

With 61 national parks in the United States, it’s hard to pick just one -– tropical islands, active volcanoes, soaring peaks, teeming wildlife refuges, apocalyptic sand dunes…. But if we had to say which National Park is the BEST, we’d say it’s the one you’re currently visiting. Every time. 

Canoemobile Update: Portland, ME

As part of our longtime social mission to provide opportunities for adults with disabilities, we gave a grant to the National Park Foundation to get 1,000 adults with disabilities into national parks this year.  The Canoemobile, operated by the skillful team from Wilderness Inquiry, is currently touring the country to connect folks to their local national parks by getting them into canoes and paddling through the great American waterways. The Canoemobile visited Portland, Maine for the very first time and set off  in Casco Bay with a canoe-ful of Toads from the Toad&Co Freeport Store. Our general manager, Ponch Membreño (you’ll see him in the red plaid shirt), paddled with the Wilderness Inquiry team and local families and adults with visual impairments and cognitive disabilities. Originally posted on the Wilderness Inquiry blog, this is Ponch’s Canoemobile story. 


My time with Canoemobile was amazing. The energy of the crew was infectious. I felt the dedication to the mission and happiness for the work you are doing. The crew members are such great ambassadors for Wilderness Inquiry and for the type of work. I can only imagine folks all across the country becoming inspired to challenge themselves to commit more time to being outside and helping others who face greater challenges.

I’m so happy I was able to connect Canoemobile with Momentum and Creative Trails [local agencies that provide support services to adults with intellectual disabilities]. Many were nervous but their staff and the Canoemobile staff did an amazing job building the participants’ confidence, helping them rise to the challenge of canoeing.

I was particularly struck by one participant who came in a wheelchair and was nervous at first. She brought her own seat and needed a team to lift her out of her wheelchair and into the canoe.


I previously led wilderness trips for a living, so I know the trust the participants place in their leaders.

But this was a whole new level.

I actually teared up at the fact that she was going to have this great experience and the immense trust she placed in the Canoemobile leaders.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to let go of all that fear, nervousness, anxiety, and excitement and have some people you met 15 minutes ago pick you up from your wheelchair on the dock and place you into a boat that is already floating in the water. And the whole time she was encouraging another participant who was more nervous than she was.

Again, I am so impressed with the entire idea of Canoemobile and equally impressed with the professionalism and energy of the crew. I really hope we cross paths again.



All photos courtesy Gretchen Powers.

Canoemobile Update: Berkeley, CA

As part of our longtime social mission to provide opportunities for adults with disabilities, we gave a grant to the National Park Foundation to get 1,000 adults with disabilities into national parks this year.  The Canoemobile, operated by the skillful team from Wilderness Inquiry, is currently touring the country to connect folks to their local national parks by getting them into canoes and paddling through the great American waterways. Adreon Morgan, one of the Canoemobile’s trusty captains, offers up the latest update:


Canoemobile had a beautiful afternoon of paddling at an adaptive canoe day in Berkeley. We were thrilled to be working with the enthusiastic Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP) crew to help introduce the Berkeley disability community to Voyageur canoeing along the shores of Berkeley Aquatic Park.

Over 50 people of the Berkeley community came out to paddle in canoes, many of whom were first time paddlers. Throughout the day, we could hear many laughs from shore, clear evidence that many paddlers were having a good time on the water.


A very special thank you to BORP staff for recruitment of participants and use of their variety of adaptive gear, lifts, and ADA accessible docks. Canoemobile has proven to be accessible to even more people and be able to support Wilderness Inquiry’s mission.

For information on when the Canoemobile will be in your area and how to get involved, check the Canoemobile schedule!



Canoemobile Update: Dallas, TX

As part of our longtime social mission to provide opportunities for adults with disabilities, we gave a grant to the National Park Foundation to get 1,000 adults with disabilities into national parks this year.  The Canoemobile, operated by the skillful team from Wilderness Inquiry, is currently touring the country to connect folks to their local national parks by getting them into canoes and paddling through the great American waterways. Adreon Morgan, one of the Canoemobile’s trusty captains, offers up the latest update:


Young, old and even a few canines paddled the lake on a sunny, 70 degree day in Dallas, TX. About 40 adults with disabilities from MetroCare and Project Search learned about water safety in small groups, practicing communication and problem-solving skills. After learning the ropes (and oars), we loaded up the canoes and hit the open waterways! 

I always love that part. Even though I’ve been on the canoe hundreds of times, seeing it through the eyes of first-timers makes me feel like it’s my first time too. Smiles abound, splashes happen and glimpsing a fish or a diving bird is always a treat. After getting back to port, a sixty-year-old man, who paddled again for the first time in decades, said it was the most fun he had in years. He was beaming from ear to ear. 

For information on when the Canoemobile will be in your area and how to get involved, check the Canoemobile schedule!



Southern Comfort: Scenic Cabins and Yurts in the South

Staying in the Guillebeau cabin, which was built in the late 1700s, is a historic experience. Photo from RootsRated.com and Discover SC

Chilly days, chillier nights and unruly rain showers may deter you from planning a camping trip in the next few months, but there’s no reason to stay at home. Cozy up, Southern comfort style, in a historic pre-Civil War cabin or wind down in a restored barn on a working farm. Looking for a middle ground between tent camping and a cabin? Try a yurt. These funky, circular dwellings are built out of flexible wood lattice and wrapped in canvas, generally with a skylight built into the domed roof. So you’re not exactly roughing it, but you’ve got all summer to do that. Here are our favorite, most scenic cabins and yurts in the Southeast.

Hickory Knob State Park – McCormick, South Carolina
You can’t help but feel like you stepped into the history books when you stay at the historic Guillebeau House in Hickory Knob State Park. Nestled into one of South Carolina’s most stunning landscapes, Guillebeau House was originally built circa 1770 and evokes all the sentimental southern feelings you never knew you had. Settle into the 2-bedroom cabin for the weekend and set out to explore Hickory Knob during the day. The lake, which lies on the border of South Carolina and Georgia, is fed by the Savannah River and offers excellent fishing among its never-ending coves. A 12-mile trail system hugs the shoreline of Strom Thurmond Lake, dipping in and out of dense stands of cedar and pine. Simple, Southern beauty.

Photo from RootsRated.com and Alaxa Lampasona

Fort Yargo State Park – Winder, GA 
Just south of Athens, Fort Yargo State Park is a true retreat, where you’ll find a sense of solitude and pristine beauty in early Spring. A group of five yurts make up the yurt village that sits on its own peninsula of the lake (and trust us, Yurt #3 has the best views since it sits on the elbow of the lake’s biggest bend). You’re surrounded by water on all three sides so you’ve got primo views of the lake’s west and northern banks. Sitting on the back deck mimics the feeling of being on the water. The yurts are located a few hundred yards from the boat ramp, and a canoe rack is in the village where $15 will get you a canoe for the weekend.

Interior of the yurts at Georgia State Parks. Photo from RootsRated.com and Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Red Top Mountain State Park – Cartersville, GA
Red Top Mountain State Park’s peninsula sits like a leaf on Lake Allatoona, its jagged edges breach the shores of the 12,000-acre lake. Book in advance, because there is only one yurt at the park – and it’s worth the wait. The yurt is hidden, and accessing it evokes the feeling of a top-secret hideaway. Just outside your humble abode are 15 miles of red-soiled trails that weave through picturesque rolling hills — perfect for a long distance trail run or hike. If the yurt is all booked up for spring, get it on your summer calendar – every Saturday evening in summer, listen to a live bluegrass concert at Old Vaughn Cabin just “next door.”

The Villas at Devils Fork State Park line the shores of Lake Jocassee. Photo from RootsRated.com and Discover SC

Lake Jocassee – Salem, South Carolina 
Lake Jocassee, close to where the South Carolina, Georgia, and Western North Carolina borders meet, is an absolute gem. Rolling, undeveloped hills surround its deep, clear waters. Several waterfalls, tucked away in green coves, tumble over rough rocks creating secret hideaways. Thirty minutes away, sweeping views from atop Table Rock Mountain are worth the steep hike. And when the day’s adventure is done, kick back on the screened in porch of one of the 20 villas that line the lake at Devils Fork State Park. Whiskey and ginger not included.

Photo from RootsRated.com and East Fork Farm Cottages

East Fork Farm Cottage – Marshall, North Carolina 
Imagine yourself waking early, surrounded by farmland, mist rising off the pastures as you sip a cup of hot coffee out on the deck. In the afternoon, you hike up to nearby Max Patch, a rolling meadow considered the most beautiful section in all the 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Unwind later in a cedar hot tub, watching the sun go down over the farm. That’s the norm when you stay at East Fork Farm for a couple days. The farm is family-owned and fully operational, located in the small mountain town of Marshall, about 25 miles outside of Asheville. There are three cottages on the premises: Meadow Branch is a quaint, cedar-shake getaway with a view of the entire farm. The East Fork is an elegantly refurbished utility barn surrounded on three sides by meadows and grazing sheep. And the Mill House is a small, two-story cabin complete with a working waterwheel. A great place for springtime contemplation and rejuvenation.

The Nantahala Yurts sit on the banks of two small ponds and above Lake Fontana. Photo from RootsRated.com and Nantahala Yurt Village

Nantahala Gorge – Bryson City, North Carolina 
Within the steep canyon walls of the Nantahala Gorge lie some of the most wild and pristine wilderness in the south. For an experience that’s off the beaten path—but directly on the hiking trails—reserve one of the eight coveted Yurts at Wildwater Village. Rugged meets boutique, so this will appeal to campers and hotel aficionados alike. The yurts come complete with a queen bed, mini fridge, ceiling fan, space heater, and you’re never to far from a hammock. Like we said, there’s no need to rough it just yet.

The Canoemobile


There’s nothing like your first time in a national park and we think everyone should have that experience. So as a part of our longtime social mission to provide opportunities for adults with disabilities, we’re giving a grant to the National Park Foundation to get 1,000 adults with disabilities into national parks in 2016. How do they do it? Via the Canoemobile.

What exactly is the Canoemobile? Well it’s just what it sounds like – it’s a van that pulls a fleet of 24-foot Voyager canoes across the country. In celebration of the National Park System’s centennial, the Canoemobile, operated by Wilderness Inquiry, will connect folks to the national parks by getting them into canoes and out onto America’s great rivers and lakes. Purple Mountains Majesty for all!

The tour kicks off on March 1, 2016 and runs through November 2016. The Canoemobile will be making stops across the country all summer, so keep an eye out for them. We’ve already got a handful of stops scheduled – places like Big Thicket National Park, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Golden Gate National Recreational Area– but we’ll be adding many more stops as we get rolling.

Stay tuned for updates on the Canoemobile’s whereabouts and tour schedule!

Best National Parks to Visit in February

Snowshoe Bryce Canyon Moab Utah Roots Rated
Mike Nielsen for RootsRated

Punxsutawney Phil has spoken: It’s officially spring, folks! Okay, the weather may not be completely on board yet, but we are! We’re packing up the car, bringing a few extra layers and headed to some of our favorite national parks – ones that happen to shine during these crispy winter – errrr, spring days! So after the cold shock of unzipping the sleeping bag has worn off and the leggings have been hastily thrown on, you’ll be glad that little groundhog welcomed spring early.

Mitch Barrie for RootsRated

 Yosemite National Park is blissfully serene in cold-weather months, especially under the canopy of changing leaves and a blanket of snow. Winter means cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and even downhill skiing—with a fraction of the approximately 4 million visitors the park sees year-round. A word to the wise, Tioga Road, the main access to the eastern parts of the park, is currently closed, meaning your excursions will be focused on destinations around Yosemite Valley. But there’s still plenty to do there (be sure to check out the park’s handy Yosemite Guide beforehand). We like to ski at Badger Pass (Northern California’s oldest ski area!), snowshoe and cross-country ski over traditional summer trails, and sidle up to the empty bar at the Ahwahnee Hotel for an après ski.

Exotic Hikes for RootsRated

Olympic National Park has no shortage of amazing camping destinations, with five camping destinations that are open year-round. Chances are, if you camp in Olympic National Park in the off-season, it will rain on you. Off-season camping isn’t something everyone will enjoy, but for the foolhardy and the fearless, it is life-changing. Pack warm clothes, a waterproof tent, and a sense of adventure and determination, and Olympic National Park is your gateway to an unforgettable time in the wild. We like Graves Creek Campground in the Quinalt Rainforest and Kalaloch Campground on the bluffs of the Pacific Ocean.

Skeeze for RootsRated

Arches National Park is breathtaking any time of year, but when the low winter sun illuminates the snowy white icing atop Moab’s velvety red rocks, you get a scenery that is unlike anything else on this planet. It’s a photographer’s dream, whether you’re a pro or just adding some brag-worthy shots to your Instagram feed. And because it’s winter, you can expect to share the entire park with only a handful of people, rather than the endless parade of visitors that Arches sees during summer and fall.

Logan Mahan for RootsRated

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of those places that you can visit a million times and never see the same place twice. We suggest Porter Creek Trail this time around. Porter Creek’s low elevation and gentle slopes make it especially wonderful in the spring, when some of the higher elevation trails are still unpredictable due to snow and ice. This gentle, peaceful 4-mile trail mixes beautiful wildflowers and lively waters with some notable historic sites – the old stone walls of the Elbert Cantrell farmstead and the tombstones of Ownby Cemetery, both from the early 20th Century.

Exotic Hikes for RootsRated

For those looking for a feeling of solitude, winter beauty and adventure, February is one of the best times to visit Glacier National Park. Don’t expect to find the usual restaurants and lodges in the surrounding towns – they’ve long been boarded up for the winter. But throw some extra blankets in your car, grab some hand warmers and just pick any old campground – most of them are wide open and free for car camping in the winter. If you’re not super gung-ho about camping in Montana in February, head out for a long day trip. Stand on the shores of Bowman Lake and let the silence crash over you, spot wildlife from your snowshoes on McDonald Creek trail, or strap some chains on your car and drive the gorgeous Going-to-the-Sun Road on the west side of the park. Be sure to check the current road status before your weekend getaway.